City of Water

An Evolving River: Life Along the Charles

The Charles’ dirty reputation may be changing as it becomes the merging point of sport, leisure and culture for the cities of Boston and Cambridge.

Ask most Bostonians about the Charles and chances are they will answer, “It’s dirty.” The widespread stigma surrounding the polluted waters has even been immortalized in the Standells song “Dirty Water,” which is played after every Red Sox victory. Despite this, the Charles River continues to be a popular recreational destination for thousands of Bostonians year round. What makes this Boston landmark so filthy yet so beloved?

“When I see the guys go in, I cringe,” said John Pojednic, head coach of Northeastern Men’s Rowing. It’s a long-standing tradition for teams on the Charles to take a dip at least once a year on a particularly hot day. After a win, it’s not uncommon for the crew to throw their coxswain into the body of water they just claimed victory over. “During my years as a rower at [Boston College], my coaches detested having us in the water. It was probably much dirtier back then,” Pojednic said .

Since 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has measured the Charles for cleanliness. The cleanliness of the water is scored by how safe it is to swim and boat in the river. In its first year, the Charles received a grade of “D” which meant it was not safe to do either activity. In 2017, the river rose to an “A-,” the highest rating since measurement began. However, this past year the Charles downgraded to a “B.” This is a long way from where it once was.

A Complicated History

The Charles River is a 308 square mile river which runs from Echo Lake in Hopkinton, MA to Boston Harbor. Compared to other rivers the Charles is relatively slow moving, which contributes to the brown color of the river; this occurs as slow moving waters penetrate wetlands on the river’s bank, slowly dredging up sediment which is carried downstream. In other words: the river will never look clean, even if it gets an A rating.

Native Americans were the first to make use of the river, mostly for fishing and transportation, but European settlers were the first to fully look at the Charles as an economic asset. Around the mid 17th century, European-built dams began popping up along the river. Instituted to slow down the river’s flow in order to harness power for the growing number of mills along the river, these dams also handicapped the river’s ability to cleanse itself. With even slower moving waters and increased industrial pollution, the Charles River began on its path as one of the dirtiest rivers in the US.

Families cooling off and enjoying a swim in the Charles River c.1930-1950.

As the cities of Boston and Cambridge grew, the waterway that connected them began to become all the more important. The Charles River we engage with today is the result of a series of projects undertaken in the last 200 years. Before the Charles River Dam was built, the waterway between Cambridge and Boston consisted of more than two miles of open water and thousands of acres of salt marshes and mud flats. Understandably so, this was not an area many people considered good for recreation or even engaging with. The creation of the Charles River Basin, and later the Esplanade, greatly changed people’s perception of the river and finally gave the cities a water park to brag about. In the years after these projects, the river became a hub for recreational activities such as canoeing, rowing, swimming and even picnicking or attending concerts on the Esplanade.

The Charles eventually became a recreational area for many. People could gather at its banks to watch Houdini perform, fish, or even attend a concert.

Head of the Charles
Spectators watch the Head of the Charles Regatta from the Harvard Bridge.

“There’s always a fun time to be had at the Head of The Charles. The rowing is as dirty as the water. I just enjoy the mess and let the river have me."

- Freddie Davidson – stroke of Cambridge (England) Boat Club A Eight

The Head of the Charles Regatta brings spectators and rowers from all over the world, partnering with Boston businesses and bringing in a lot of revenue for the city. Since 1965, the Regatta has helped to spread the legacy of the Charles by bringing people from all over to its banks. In it's 55th year of competition, many teams competed with hopes of making it to the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

Alex Brown, 24, rowed in college at Michigan State University until he relocated to central Boston for a job in analytics. He now rows at Riverside Boat Club.

“I love to stay in shape, and I want to stay competitive for as long as I can.”

When Brown rowed in Michigan, it was not uncommon, especially after a hot day, to take a dip into the water. “The water was clean there, to my knowledge,” Brown said. “Here it doesn’t seem worth it.”

Riverside Boat Club, along with many other boat clubs that surround the Charles, get weekly emails from the Charles River Association of Boaters about runoff, water waste discharge, and sediment or bloom treatments going on in the river. The association organizes and distributes pertinent information to river-goers so that businesses that send waste water to the Charles can comply with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Charles River Watershed Association guidelines.

"The water [the treatment facilities] send to the Charles is supposed to be treated, but it’s generally known that you’re supposed to stay away from those areas for a bit,” said Brown.

Brown rows by himself in a single, the boat class with the highest probability of being tipped over due to waves or winds.

“The Charles has always been one of the biggest conduits for our [rowing] communities — it’s done more for us in terms of growth than any one person could. I understand that the river has come a long way […] I think in this way it reflects the determination and spirit of the people that surround it.”

Steve Gladstone – head coach of Men’s Rowing at Yale University

The River Today: A Community Staple

The Charles River is a growing ground for activities showing how the community can come together. In October, the Charles hosted many for Breast Cancer awareness events. The river's esplanade and walking paths provided plenty of space for the 5k walk, ending at the half shell. The walk was lined with pink from start to finish.

Dominic Rosario is a 27-year-old South Boston resident and a lifeguard at Veterans Memorial outdoor pool in Cambridgeport. The pool looks directly out onto the river from Magazine Beach’s rocky shore.

“I barely trust some of our patrons to swim in our pool,” said Dominic, “that thing [The Charles] has a current you know.”

Dominic doesn’t trust anyone to go in the water. He sits by the beach on a bench not far from the pool, almost as if he was still on duty. Dominic is very familiar with the area—this being his favorite place to relax and collect his thoughts while not on duty.

Dominic explained that his uncertainty derives from a childhood experience a close friend of his had on a cold winter day on the river. “He was sliding all over the river while the top was frozen, then he slid under the water for twenty feet.”

Dominic’s friend managed to climb out of the water through a gap in the ice, but the notion that he almost lost a friend to the river still haunts him.

“I love the water, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t think it’s for everyone,” said Dominic.

Patricia Musolino, 43, a pediatric neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, brings her dog, Sandy, to Magazine Beach almost every Sunday. She is no stranger to the reputation of a dirty Charles.

“Sandy just loves the water, especially on a hotter day,” said Musolino, one warm evening in late September. Musolino and Sandy were playing fetch along the rockier edge of the beach’s most downstream side. “I make sure to give him a good bath when we get home.” Sandy gave a good shake, showering her owner with lake water. “Looks like I need a bath now," too, Musolino said.

Musolino says many of her medical students enjoy leaping from Harvard’s lowest bridges into the water.

“They’re daring and braver than I… I don’t think I’d take a swim,” she said.

Musolino equates her skepticism and caution with the Charles River with her early experiences with unclean river conditions. She grew up in Argentina on and around the Rio Grande. As kids, she and her friends would spend a lot of time in the water. “It was sometimes the thickness and color of chocolate milk but as children we didn’t know much,” Musolino said The adults would tell is not to go in but […] couldn’t keep us out.”

Today, Musolino is eager for the city to keep up its work in furthering its cleanliness.

“Ideally, everyone should be able to use the river how they want.” Patricia said, her hand resting on Sandy’s head.

Dogs of the Charles

Produced by students of the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2019